In Search of the Zoroastrians

J.R.D Tata

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J.R.D. Tata was born to an Indian father and a French mother in Paris, France, and was inspired by aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot. In 1929 Tata got the first pilot licence issued in India, and became known as the father of Indian civil aviation. He founded India's first commercial airlines, Tata Airlines, in 1932, which in 1946 became Air India.

For decades, Tata directed the
Tata Group of Companies, with major interests in many industries in India, including steel, engineering and electrical companies. He was famous for succeeding in business while maintaining high ethical standards - refusing to bribe politicians or use the black market.

He was awarded the
Bharat Ratna in 1992 for his service to commerce and industry in the country. When he passed away, the Indian Parliament was adjourned for 3 days as a mark of respect in an extremely rare gesture.


In the mid-1970s, a convoy of cars and buses sped along a highway in Sweden with motorcycle escorts on either side. A helicopter constantly hovered over it, for the cargo was precious. In this convoy were men of finance and industry who between them controlled billions and who could be held up for vast ransoms.

     Every six months they met either in America or in Europe under the aegis of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Among them were Dr. Giovanni Agnelli, president of Fiat; the president of Ford Motors; the biggest shipbuilder in the world, who was from Hong Kong; a member of the House of Mitsubishi; David Rockefeller, president of the Chase Manhattan; and Dr. Henry Kissinger.

     The most carefree in this select company was J.R.D. Tata from India. He assured his friends, "Nobody will kidnap me, for nobody will want a ransom in rupees !"

     When not on one of his travels in India or abroad, he stayed with his wife in a bungalow that definitely stood its ground when skyscrapers soared all around it. The sprawling bungalow, set amidst scores of shady trees, is a vestige of a by-gone era of space and leisure. One room in the home was allocated for a workshop and a gymnasium which J.R.D. proudly showed to his visit-ors.

     J.R.D. preferred to spend a good deal of his time in what appeared to be his study. There was a whole shelf of books on aviation, another on military ventures and warfare, and one on sports cars and motor racing. He liked to read crime fiction, lighter books like David Niven's Bring on the Horses, and books by Louis L'Amour.

     J.R.D. was not just a collector of books but was an avid and enthusiastic reader. After one of my first interviews at his home, I returned with three of his favourite books including one by Alexander Woolcott, which J.R.D. was keen I should read.

     For my interviews connected with his biography we used to meet in what I thought was his study. About three years later, I discovered that this room was not only his study, but also his bedroom!

     I ventured to say, 'Sir, nobody in your position will live in a room as small as this.'

     He replied, 'Why? It suffices me.' 

J.R.D. was an interesting product of two continents.

     Born in Paris in 1904, J.R.D. schooled in Paris, Bombay and Yokohama. Most of his education was in France. In order to improve his English before going to Cam-bridge, he was sent to an English Grammar School.

     According to J.R.D., his mother was a very resourceful, intelligent and adaptable lady who - with five children - single-handedly packed up her household items in France and came to India to be with her husband, who was in the House of Tatas. As she went back to her home country every year or two, J.R.D.'s education was regularly disrupted.

     His grandmother was a very formidable lady. 'Her husband was a humorist and after some time with her,' says J.R.D., 'the gentleman ran away as anyone would have, had he been married to my grandmother.' Per-haps J.R.D. inherited his sense of humour from his French grandfather.

     Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English Channel, had a house on the coast of France near the Tata's country home. Bleriot's pilot, who used to land a small plane on the beach, once gave J.R.D. a joyride. It was then that the fifteen-year-old boy decided that one day he too would fly. He had to wait ten years for it to happen.

     After school, he was drafted for a year into the French army and assigned to a regiment in France called Le Saphis. At the end of his time there, he expected to go on to Cambridge where a place was reserved for him. But his father summoned him back to India to join the Tatas.

     It was to rankle with him for decades that he never went to a university. His father must have had a premonition, for he died nine months later and J.R.D. took his place as director of Tata Sons, which controls India's largest industrial group. J.R.D. was twenty-one.

     Though he missed his college education, he undertook his own education after office hours, studying books on various aspects of business. When he was in his early twenties, while recovering from typhoid, he would come to his room at the Raj, throw himself in bed and study. When his sister Rodabeh pleaded, 'Why don't you rest Jeh, you are tired and unwell,' J.R.D. replied, 'I want to be worthy of Tatas.' 

Flying was a passion with J.R.D. He was the first one to qualify within India to fly. He got his licence, which bore on it Number 1, on 10 February 1929. When I asked him what was the greatest adventure of his life, he replied, 'The flying experience. None can equal that.' He added, 'When you are on your own in that little plane at the control without an instructor, and the plane speeds on the runway and finally takes off - you know you are in the air on you own.'

     In 1930, the Aga Khan Trophy was offered for the first Indian to fly solo from India to England or vice versa. J.R.D. competed, taking off from Karachi to London. When he landed at Aboukir Bay in Egypt, he found that Aspy Engineer, the other contender, flying from London to Karachi, was stranded in the desert airfield for want of a spark plug!

     J.R.D.  sportingly parted with his spare one and they continued their journey in opposite directions. Aspy beat him by a couple of hours. 'I am glad he won,' said J.R.D., 'because it helped him get into the Royal Indian Air Force.' Later Aspy was to be the second Indian to be the chief of the Indian Air Force.

     J.R.D. recalled that in 1932, 'one October morning as the sun rose on the eastern horizon, a single-engined Puss Moth plane took off from Karachi with a load of mail for Bombay. As the plane hummed and rose the pilot said a word of prayer.' And so India's first airline - the Tata Airlines - was inaugurated.

     In 1948, J.R.D. went on to start Air-India International. Within ten years he was president of Inter-national Air Transport Association (IATA). Though the airline was nationalized in 1953, he remained at the helm of Air India till 1978, making it one of the most efficient airlines in the world.

     In 1938, at the age of thirty-four, he became the chairman of the largest industrial group in India, which he led with distinction for fifty-two years.

     When I asked him why he was appointed at such a young age as chairman of Tata Sons, when senior, more distinguished men like Sir Homi Mody and Sir Ardeshir Dalal were on the board, he shrugged it off and said, 'It was an aberration.' When pressed for a reply, he said, 'Perhaps, because I was hard working.'

     With his limitation of formal education, how did he discharge his res-ponsibilities? 'Because of a lack of technical know-ledge, my main contribution in management was to encourage others.'

     He elaborated on how he dealt with each man in his own way and brought out the best in people. 'At times, it involved  suppressing yourself. It is painful but necessary... To lead men, you have to lead them with affection.'

     With more than sixty years of experience in top management, he developed his own philosophy and method where leadership was concerned. 'One of the qualities of leadership is to assess what is needed to get the best results for an enterprise. If that demands being a very active executive chairman, as I was in Air-India, I did that. On the other hand, in one of our other companies where I know that the managing director likes to be alone and will get the results that way, I argue with myself and decide that it will be stupid for me to come in the way when the other person has a capacity for focusing his genius and producing the results. Often a chairman's main responsibility is to inspire respect.' And then he added, 'Don't forget, I like people.'

     It has been one of the richest experiences of my life to have known him as the chairman of the Trust I was director of and as his biographer.

     Every interview with him was an exhilarating experience, Each time I learnt something. I once mentioned to him, 'Of course, Sir, you believe in excellence.' He retorted sharply, 'Not excellence. Perfection. You aim for perfection, you will attain excellence. If you aim for excellence, you will go lower.'

                                              (to be continued)


(Excerpted with permission of the author from A Touch of Greatness : encounters with the eminent by R. M. Lala; published by Viking Penguin India)


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